Southern tradition highlights a cake, a classic Southern lady
by Margaret Dabbs
Mar 07, 2012 | 3031 views | 0 0 comments | 35 35 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Margaret Dabbs
Margaret Dabbs
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In the early pages of “To Kill a Mocking-bird,” as Harper Lee masterfully begins to introduce her deliberately-crafted characters, Atticus explains to Scout and Jem how his client Mr. Cunningham will pay for the legal work Atticus did for him. At that time, the Great Depression covered our country, stifling her vitality like a huge wet blanket, and no one had money to pay a lawyer. But Atticus was certain Mr. Cunningham would take care of his debt within the year.

The grown-up Scout, who narrated the story, observed, “One morning Jem and I found a load of stovewood in the back yard. Later, a sack of hickory nuts appeared on the back steps. With Christmas came a crate of smilax and holly. That spring when we found a croker-sack full of turnip greens, Atticus said Mr. Cunningham had more than paid him.”

A good 50 years later, our law firm’s clients brought us Walmart bags overflowing with yellow squash, baskets of tomatoes still warm from the sun, and corn so fresh the worm that made its way outside the husk was still fat and sassy. These summer treasures might represent payment for legal services or quite often, they were just a thoughtful way to say thank you to a lawyer or staff member.

Euna Mae

Gambrell’s story

On several occasions, Euna Mae Gambrell quietly came in the office back door and left one of her homemade Hummingbird Cakes on the counter in the kitchen. Welcomed and devoured with gusto by whoever was lucky enough to be there, this moist, three-layer cake, filled with crushed pineapple, bananas, and pecans, disappeared long before the workday was over.

After carefully savored memories of Euna Mae’s cake were coaxed forward by an unsatisfied sweet tooth, she and I sat in her cheerful, cozy kitchen and sorted through her collection of recipes and cookbooks. As we diligently hunted for the Hummingbird Cake, conversation about food and family flowed easily. Euna Mae was reminded of her mother’s expert hand in the kitchen, noting the “cobbler pies” and the “wonderful teacakes” her mother made for her 12 children to take to school in their lunchboxes.

Born in Ashland and spending her teenage years in Albertville, Euna Mae ultimately graduated from Shades Cahaba High School where her interest focused on journalism, and she earned a scholarship to Jacksonville State University in that field. But she chose marriage and owned Nixon’s Fashion Shop, a clothing store for women in Albertville, before moving to Jasper and raising her son and two daughters here.

Even though she worked in retail at Newmark’s and Top Dollar and ran the office for Gulf Explosives, Euna Mae’s heart belonged to journalism, so she worked for the Daily Mountain Eagle in the 1970s. Hired to be the society editor and write a column called “Euna Mae’s Talk of the Town,” she ended up also covering “hard news” such as murders, automobile accidents and tornadoes with the two male reporters.

Eager to be “out there where the stories were,” and unafraid to leave home in the middle of the night to cover a story, Euna Mae remembered enthusiastically pursuing a story which required accompanying the sheriff’s deputies on a mission to find and arrest a bootlegger in the Dora area. The tip referred to a cave which actually was an opening in the ground and she had to crawl in on her knees to reach the cave and the still. Finding the still abandoned, one of the deputies questioned why and then immediately noticed obviously rotten timbers supporting the ceiling. About that time, since she was determined to have a photograph accompany her story, Euna Mae’s camera flash popped, startling everybody, and she could not remember how she managed to be the first one out of the cave. She chuckled as she recalled both danger and humor in the event, and then emphatically explained, “I decided I didn’t care if I had a picture or not.”

After working for the Daily Mountain Eagle for about four years, Euna Mae became the Walker County correspondent for the Birmingham Post Herald for 15 years. She covered the tragic story involving the cheerleaders whose car went off an embankment and ended up in the Warrior River, “one of the saddest stories I ever covered,” and it made the front page headline. If her stories were brief, she called them into the newspaper. Long stories rode the bus to Birmingham, and if she had photographs for a story, she provided the transportation.

The Hummingbird Cake Story

As the afternoon gently moved toward dusk, the recipe was found and our attention shifted back to the present and our initial objective. In February 1978, Southern Living magazine published the Hummingbird Cake recipe sent in by reader Mrs. L. H. Wiggins from Greensboro, N. C. The magazine is given credit for the “first known printed reference” to the cake. Over the years, Hummingbird Cake developed a loyal following and Southern Living proudly touts this cake as its most frequently requested recipe. No one who eats Hummingbird Cake or makes it questions why, but a definite mystery surrounds the name.

Offering no explanation for the name of her rich, dense cake, Mrs. Wiggins left those who have baked and enjoyed Hummingbird Cake to create their own.

Perhaps those who savor this cake hum with happiness with every bite. Or it is simply as sweet as the nectar which attracts the birds. Eager eaters hover around the cake just as hummingbirds hover around their favorite flowers. Hummingbird Cake also encourages an eating style similar to the diminutive birds’ habit, quickly in and gone in a flash.

Hummingbird Cake has made its way into an assortment of cookbooks and into the recipe files of many Southern bakers. Easily prepared, this solid, reliable recipe has essentially remained intact over the last 30 years. Small changes in some recipe sources usually involve the mixing method or the amount of oil and bananas. When food guru Martha Stewart published the recipe in the June 2003 Martha Stewart Living, she added her own touches by using less oil, more bananas, and adding coconut. In February 2012, Southern Living presented a slightly modified version of the basic cake baked in a Bundt pan and covered with a cream cheese-powdered sugar glaze and then promoted it on the front cover as a “Classic Southern Dessert.”

Created by the original 1978 recipe, Euna Mae’s Hummingbird Cake requires no adjustments. Crushed pineapple, bananas, and the merest hint of cinnamon subtly come together to create a cake you can make without special skill and then watch as it disappears as deftly as a hummingbird.

Hummingbird Cake

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 cups sugar

3 eggs- beaten

1 and 1/2 cups salad oil

1 and 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple - undrained

2 cups chopped bananas

2 cups chopped pecans or walnuts

Cream Cheese Frosting

2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese- softened

1 cup butter- softened

2 (16-ounce) packages powdered sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Grease and flour three 9-inch cake pans.

2. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

3. Add the eggs and the oil. Stir until the dry ingredients are moistened. Do not beat.

4. Stir in the vanilla, pineapple, bananas, and 1 cup of the nuts.

5. Bake at 350 until the layers test done.

6. Cool the layers in the pans for about 10 minutes.

7. Remove the cake from the pans and cool completely.

8. For the frosting, combine the cream cheese and butter in a mixer. Cream until the mixture is smooth.

9. Add the powdered sugar and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy. Stir in the vanilla.

10. Spread the frosting between the layers and on the top and sides of the cake. Sprinkle the remaining nuts over the cake.

Notes

•Be careful not to overcook the layers. Set the timer for 20 minutes and test for doneness at that point.

•You may not need all of the powdered sugar. Add as much as you need for taste and for the proper spreading consistency.

•Stir the cake by hand and use the mixer for the frosting.

A favorite novel and an unsatisfied sweet tooth called forth reminders of a wonderful Southern tradition and pieces of the story of Euna Mae Gambrell, who made the tradition a habit. As she shared this soul-satisfying, classic Southern cake, told the stories of others through her writing, and raised her family, Euna Mae revealed the intrinsic qualities of a classic Southern lady — grace, generosity, and intelligence.

Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890